Cats and Catnip

by herbalist Debs Cook

Amongst cat lovers it’s a well-known fact that Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is the thing cats love above all else, tuna aside that is. In fact when you mention catnip most people associate it with cats and not with the fact that for humans it can make a soothing tea for the nerves, and has antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, nervine, sedative, stimulant, stomachic and tonic properties. For more information on how catnip can be useful to humans see the JustBotanics article 5 Facts About: Catnip.

Now back to cats . . .  

Ingesting catnip has no effect on a cat, it’s the nepetalactone vapour that the catnip gives off, that your cat reacts to. When the cat smells catnip, the scent molecules travel to a receptor above the palate in the roof of the mouth known as the Vomeronasal Organ, aka Jacob’s Organ. This organ helps your cat to analyse smell, the same organ is used to analyse the scent of other cats and its environmental surroundings. When a cat begins its catnip trip, they collect the aroma from the catnip in their mouth, then use their tongue to flick the scent up to the vomeronasal organ. A cat making use of their vomeronasal organ exhibits a facial expression that we would call a frown, as the cat frowns, their upper lip curls up and the mouth will partially open, the cat frown is known as the Flehmen Response.

The Science
A study was conducted by Neil B Todd in 1962 on the ‘Inheritance of the Catnip Response in Domestic Cats’ which involved the study of 58 participating cats. The study noted that kittens under 8 weeks exhibited no reaction to catnip, and according to Todd when kittens are given it the “catnip often produces a distinct avoidance response in young kittens which is gradually replaced by indifference in non-responders and by heightened curiosity in responders”. The catnip reaction is thought to be exhibited due to an inherited characteristic related to an autosomal dominant gene, and the effect isn’t just exhibited in domestic cats, it’s also exhibited by other members of the cat family, such as lions, tigers, cougars and the lynx. The reaction is down to plant chemistry; Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone, a terpenoid, which is similar in structure to actinidine found in Valerian and iridomyrmecin found in Silver Vine aka Cat Powder (Actinidia polygama) all of these constituents are odourants and are considered to be cat attractants and some consider the effect on cats to be the cat version of an LSD trip, with the catnip having a psychedelic ‘trippy’ effect. There are genuine cases of cats that simply do not react to catnip, and if you're cat doesn't respond, then you may be interested to know that just less than 1/3rd of cats who don't respond to Catnip, may react instead to Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

My Experience
This I can certainly testify to be true, some of my previous cats have gone wild over Valerian when they wouldn’t touch catnip at all. My first cat Sooty was a Valerian cat, I came across his love for this herb by accident in the days when I sold dried herbs. I left a box of Valerian that I was working with open for a brief time whilst I answered the phone and came back to a tub all over the floor with a very happy cat rolling around in the middle of it. Cats that are, shall we say 'sensitive' to nepetalactone show a range of behaviours including sniffing it, rubbing the head or body against it, licking and chewing it, rubbing their heads and chins on it, grabbing it between their front paws and bunny kicking it with their back paws. If the catnip is an actual garden plant, they will exhibit the same behaviours as just mentioned and will also roll all over the plant until it's squashed flat, they may even chew the plant, in order to get the plant to release its nepetalactone and whilst they're doing it, they're in a heightened state looking like they are away with the cat fairies.
I’ve had conversations with many people who say that their cats don’t react to catnip, and when I enquire as to whether they’re buying catnip from pet stores and mass produced toys that have been hanging around in shops and warehouses for who knows how long, the answer is always yes. In my humble opinion therein lies the problem, these toys that have been left on shelves and in warehouses for extended periods have next to no nippy goodness left in them, and I’m convinced that the majority of store bought nip toys hardly have any nip in them to start with. So given that cats have a sense of smell that is 14 times stronger than humans, it’s hardly surprising that Mr Tiddles doesn’t react to the mousie toy you bought him from the pet store, no matter how lovingly it was procured, he can tell its inferior nip!
Click here for how to make home made catnip goodies

Cats are very sensitive to the scent given off by catnip, in fact they can smell nepetalactone even if its 1 part per 1,000,000,000,000 (trillion) parts in the air. When I give people a quality catnip to smell they are astonished at how aromatic catnip actually is, and most report back that their cats astonishingly wind up in nippy heaven when they give them the real deal. When a cat has a nip adventure, the effect can last up to 15 minutes, in my experience with my cats it’s usually more like 5 minutes then the cat becomes over stimulated and leaves the nip toy for a cool down period. If it’s left out they’ll come back and try again. Once the cat has had the experience, they generally need at least an hour before they will get 'excited' by the nip again, it’s worth noting that in some cats, catnip can make them exhibit aggressive behaviour and even agitation, so they may play a little rougher for a while.